Monday, July 18, 2016

The Natural Prayer of the Soul

The Eye of the Storm by Patrick White

The Australian novelist and Nobel Laureate Patrick White is one of those literary giants whose work few people seem to read any more. His voice, his style, while in many ways expressly, distinctly modern, are of another rhythm, another age.

In his illuminating short essay on the experience of translating the poetry of Paul Celan, John Felstiner quotes Celan as having remarked, as if as his credo, “Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul…” It is a statement that naturally makes one think of poetry itself, and of the poets who write it, those who live by what they notice, what they see. Yet such is the purpose, finally, the achievement, of all great writing, that of lifting the blinders from our eyes. It is this devotion to patient, hard-won observation, to turning the world around him inside-out, that distinguishes the novels of Patrick White, the very pages of which seem to twitch and shudder with life. What he notices few of us have ever seen, at least with such intensity, such affection, detail; still, we know that he is right, that he has seen us (his characters) clearly, seen us well; we know it because he taps something ancient in us, something latent in our brains, perhaps reminding us of how we used to see, of how we once used to be.

I have now spent the better part of three days making my way through his extraordinarily fine novel, The Eye of the Storm, while sitting by the fountain in the small cool garden at the side of my house. I read and read until something—a phrase, a hummingbird—makes me look up and the effect is nearly always the same. The fine focus of White’s prose, that densely woven world in which I was just engrossed, has been superimposed upon the world about me here, in New Mexico, in the garden where I sit—upon the fountain, upon the lavender and rosemary, upon the clatter of dishes inside. For a shimmering instant it is as though I am sensing this too through the lens of White’s eye. And for a time—brief as that may be—I feel I actually do see better, see more, and more truly, as if the world itself is anxious to be seen.

As in so much great literature, this novel is born of a reunion, of the fateful gathering of a mother and a daughter and a son. Set in the Sydney suburb of Centennial Park, it focuses on the once-beautiful, now blind and embittered widow and matriarch, Elizabeth Hunter (the lilac wig, the deliquescent smile), who spends her days in bed, attended—like a diva or Fury or queen—by her trusty lawyer, and by an eccentric collection of nurses, each of whom (this too is White’s genius) we come to know quite well.

When the novel opens Elizabeth is awaiting the arrival from France of her recently divorced daughter, Dorothy, an adoptive aristocrat by the name of Princesse de Lascabane, and of her son, Basil, a celebrated, if increasingly superannuated stage actor in London. What follows is a finely textured family drama of cruelty, impotence, and longing that is worthy of the stage itself, an antipodean King Lear (as one critic put it) in which the stakes for each of the players are as tragic, as fateful, as they are petty, ruthless, and vain.

Well-known for his novel The Vivisector, White himself was a master of that same trade, peeling back the skin of his characters to consider the mysteries within. Here, to give you a taste of his language, his prose, is the chastened daughter, Dorothy, just returned from France, as she considers her mother holding court from her bed:

At her most loving, Mother had never been able to resist the cruel thrust. To have loved her in the prime of her beauty, as many had, was like loving, or ‘admiring’ rather, a jeweled scabbard in which a sword was hidden: which would clatter out under the influence of some peculiar frenzy, to slash off your ears, the fingers, the tongues, or worse, impale the hearts, of those who worshipped. And yet we continued to offer ourselves, if reluctantly. As they still do, it appears: to this ancient scabbard, from which the jewels have loosened and scattered, the blind sockets filled instead with verdigris, itself a vengeful semi-jewelry, the sword still sharp in spite of age and use.

“One seeks among debased superlatives for words that would convey the grandeur of The Eye of the Storm,” writes Shirley Hazzard, in her review of the novel for The New York Times, “not in destitute slogans but in tribute to its high intellect, its fidelity to our victories and confusions, its beauty and heroic maturity… every passage merits attention and gives satisfaction.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Peter Adam Nash


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